In the backyard of Facebook, Oracle and moneyed Sand Hill Road, more than half of public schools lack the Internet speed and connectivity needed to harness digital learning.

Still, they're far better off than the nation as a whole: An estimated 70 percent of schools endure slow speeds or lack wireless connections, according to partial findings of an ambitious national survey by the San Francisco-based nonprofit EducationSuperHighway.

The effort to expand schools' digital infrastructure will get a boost from a $9 million grant, announced Wednesday, mainly from Mark Zuckerberg's Startup-Education foundation and the Gates Foundation.

The grant will enable EducationSuperHighway to get more schools to test their Internet speeds. So far, 26 state education departments -- but not California's -- have signed on to assess their schools' digital tools. "You can't fix it if you don't know where the problem is," said Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway.

And it will help ¿schools improve their Net connections. This isn't an effort to replace teachers with online learning. Instead, Marwell said, digital tools enable teachers to offer individual instruction, lead small groups, personalize work, tell what students have learned and address their needs. "Digital learning is one of the few scalable levers we have to improve education outcomes in our schools," said Marwell, 48.


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The Obama administration has set a goal of connecting all K-12 schools to high-speed Internet in five years.

To expand capacity, the Federal Communications Commission offers $2.4 billion a year to schools. But already its E-rate initiative, started about 15 years ago, needs updating, and the FCC is in the process of gathering public comment on revisions.

EducationSuperHighway also offers to help schools upgrade. "The typical school doesn't have expertise to design, implement and maintain mission-critical networks," Marwell said. "Schools aren't very good at buying this stuff."

For instance, the median bandwidth cost for schools is $25 per megabit per month. But technologically advanced schools may pay only $2.50 per megabit.

In San Mateo County, when the EducationSuperHighway surveyed in the fall, about 45 percent of schools reported adequate digital access, and 35 percent were on their way toward setting it up. Surprisingly, both the have and have-not camps included socioeconomic variation. Among those best equipped were Sequoia and San Mateo high school districts, and the Las Lomitas, Menlo Park, Redwood City, Belmont-Redwood Shores, San Carlos and Ravenswood elementary districts.

Those with the least capacity included Hillsborough, Jefferson elementary and high school districts, San Bruno Park, South San Francisco, Cabrillo and La Honda-Pescadero.

Especially on the Coastside, the survey noted, schools can't get high-speed connections because the region lacks the network infrastructure, and districts don't have the funds to upgrade.

San Carlos spent 18 months improving its digital infrastructure, including network switches, wireless devices and bandwidth, technology director Tom Keating said. The district has moved from maintaining rows of computers in labs to providing Chromebooks to students in grades 3 through 8 in their own classrooms.

By using free online technology, he said, students in English class can peer-review papers and teachers can review student writing in real time. "This is huge for teachers," Keating said. It has been so successful that history and science teachers plan to follow suit.

The Sequoia Union High district, technology director Robert Fishtrom said, in November upgraded its bandwidth to 1 gigabyte on its campuses. Now it will add a wireless access point in each classroom.

That way, the district will be prepared when it rolls out a policy, anticipated for August, allowing students to use their own mobile devices in classrooms.

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.